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In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made

3.48  ·  Rating details ·  4,057 ratings  ·  424 reviews
Ring around the rosies,
A pocketful of posies,
Ashes, ashes,
We all fall down.

—"Ring Around the Rosies," a children's rhyme about the Black Death

The Black Death was the fourteenth century's equivalent of a nuclear war. It wiped out one-third of Europe's population, taking some 20 million lives. And yet, most of what we know about it is wrong. The details of the Plague etched
Paperback, 245 pages
Published April 16th 2002 by Harper Perennial (first published 2001)
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3.48  · 
Rating details
 ·  4,057 ratings  ·  424 reviews

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Ugh, the negative reviews are right. Despite seeing all the criticism, I thought, "Well, maybe it won't be so bad. How can a history of the Black Death be terrible?" But Cantor managed it. I'd never read anything by the guy, but if his other work is even marginally like this, then I'll avoid it like, well, the plague.

I'm only reiterating what's been said in the other reviews, but it's worth another mention. The off-topic tangents and irrelevant details (who cares about the wine on sale today rel
Aug 05, 2014 rated it liked it
Shelves: history
In the Wake of the Plague: The Black Death and the World It Made by Norman F. Cantor is a lecture-type book filled with some interesting facts and amusing side stories; it is easy to read at only 220 pages long and does not have a single footnote. While it might not be the in-depth analysis that medieval scholars would look for on this subject, it was exactly what I (a casual history buff) wanted when I picked it up: general information into the plague, its causes, and its effect on European his ...more
May 10, 2011 rated it did not like it
Of all of Norman Cantor's books about the Middle Ages, this is by far the worst! Cantor was once a decent (though never great) medieval historian, but that time has long past. This book is not only poorly written/edited, but it is also wildly inaccurate. Its clear that the intended audience of this book is the general public and it is not for a specialist, but that does not make it acceptable to sensationalize/misrepresent facts in the guise of making the subject more interesting or more accessi ...more
Aug 04, 2011 rated it it was ok
Cantor took a fascinating subject and basically threw away all the options he had to be interesting and craft a narrative with impact. His writing is basically what you'd expect from an academic (i.e., NOT a writer) trying to write for the popular market - he tries to engage the reader with stories and specific examples, only to lead you down a lot of irrelevant tangents, or to pique your interest and then never return to finish a subject he's opened. He's not even a very good writer, mechanical ...more
Remittance Girl
Jun 16, 2012 rated it did not like it
I have to agree with many of the earlier reviews. The number of digressions to unrelated issues and the sarcastic sideways swipes of the most blatant and subjective sort made this book unreadable.

I was interested in the Black Death. I was not interested in Mr. Cantor's personal feelings on the royal families of Europe, who owns Catherine of Aragon's vineyards today, or his scathing remarks on the medical ignorance of medieval physicians.

This strikes me as being written by someone who is far mor
Tom Darrow
Jul 31, 2011 rated it it was ok
This book is pretty terrible. I gave it two stars, as opposed to one, because it is clear that he knows a fair amount about the Middle Ages. He didn't earn any more than two because 1) it's clear that he knows very little about the Bubonic Plague and 2) he doesn't make very many strong connections about how the plague impacted the world.

Most of his focus is on England and not the rest of Europe. He goes off on tangents about the English royal family 3 generations before the plague.

The few good p
May 13, 2016 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history, terrible
Unbelievably awful.
Peter Mcloughlin
Straightforward history of the Black Death and its effect on Europe. Some of this cataclysm still affects us to this day. The more hopeful high middle ages was ended in this 14th-century pandemic. This makes what looks like a transitional period when looking backward but it was the end of the world to contemporaries. Transitional periods are interesting to me. I spent my childhood in the 1970s one of those grim periods when an old era dies and something new is in the works. It isn't pleasant tim ...more
Jul 05, 2012 rated it liked it
Norman Cantor’s slim little volume the Black Death is a great example of how to write a popular history. His main goal is to tell us, in broad strokes, what he thinks. He’s the well known professor out on the lecture circuit, not the Ph.D. candidate defending his thesis. There’s not a footnote in sight, but there are plenty of one-liners and off-handed jabs:

Late medieval England was not a welfare society. That did not happen until the application of the Elizabethan poor laws in the 1580s which,
Torrey Gilday
Sep 09, 2011 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
After reviewing this book for an undergrad history course (not by choice), I thought I would revisit it as more of a "fun" book--a decision I regret.

The most that can be said for this book is that it does contain some interesting factoids about the time period, which succeed in partially fleshing out the social life of the Middle Ages. For the uneducated layman, it does provide some introduction to the Black Death.

Unfortunately, the author looms large in this book, which by definition makes it b
This is possibly the worst book of history I have ever read. High points include: a suggestion that Jews were to blame for their own massacre (152), a twenty-page-plus chapter on how the Black Death was good for women (123-146), the assertion that Shakespeare's Richard II is "in some ways the best account of that pathetic and unstable figure" (214) (who, Cantor takes pains to remind us, multiple times, was gay, gay, gay), pages of rambling about Jewish history into the twentieth century (164-167 ...more
May 21, 2010 rated it did not like it
Terrible. As someone who is keenly interested in both the time period as well as communicable disease, I found this book horribly biased (author frequently feels the need to comment on people of the time in often derogatory ways, particularly those of the ruling class), badly written, and could not even stomach finishing it more than halfway, when I can count the number of books I've put down unfinished on two hands. It jumps around like a scared rabbit in no particular order, and to be frank, i ...more
Nov 28, 2009 rated it it was ok
I don't read a lot of books about history. Is this how they're supposed to read? I found it convoluted, disjointed, and prone to tangents. I would spend pages wondering what in the hell this was supposed to do with the main topic of the chapter, and then finally, at the end, he would tack on an epilogue explaining how it all fit together. In the end, I guess I did learn a lot about medieval history, but not all that much about the Black Death itself. I think it would have been more interesting t ...more
Robin Hobb
Mar 03, 2013 rated it it was amazing
Well written and absorbing. This book offered me a lot of insights into not just what the plague did to Europe, but how it changed social structure, especially in regard to the role of wealthy women. Recommended highly.
Sep 08, 2008 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: anyone interested in the Plague or Midievil Europe
The focus of this book was primarily upon the effects of the Black Death (as you might guess from the title).

Cantor did talk about possible causes of the Plague mostly in the beginning and end of the book. The current theory seems to be the Y. Pestis carried by black rats with a simultaneous outbreak of Anthrax contracted from sick cattle. Apparently black rats are very slow moving and generally have a very limited range of travel so while it is quite possible they carried the fleas that spread
Jan 20, 2016 rated it it was ok
While the late Norman Cantor, author of this book, may have been a Professor of History, etc. at NYU, this work has enough flaws for his editors to rightly have demanded a re-write.

Stubbornly, I hung in until Page 103 of the soft cover edition, when I threw up my hands and thought, "Enough!" Here are a few of my reasons for closing this book for good.

First, Cantor's overall tone is completely un-scholarly. Witness, for instance, his reference to Princess Joan, daughter of Edward III, as a "top-
Dec 14, 2014 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Oh golly was this a bad book.

Incoherent and inaccurate, this late effort by Cantor fails to even live up to its title, and elucidate the lasting effects the Black Plague. The sources Cantor cites are antique and appear selected just because they agree with his own opinions, the chapter order is random and compose of rambling anecdotes that arrive in weird places, and throughout the book unsupported observations repeat endlessly as if repetition makes the assertion more truer.

Furthermore, Cantor
Nov 28, 2008 rated it it was ok
Frankly, I was disappointed. I had high hopes for this book. I am fascinated by the Black Death and interested in the author's theory that the Black Death was actually a combination of the plague and anthrax. This is not a theory I had heard much about. Rather than enhancing my understanding of his hypothesis, it left me without answers or substantiation of this cutting edge theory.

Rather than the story of the plague itself, it seemed the relative merits of the economic feudal system of the mid
Calypso Kenney
Jan 04, 2015 rated it did not like it
I didn't really understand the tone of this book- it was as if the author hated his subject. The Plague of the 14th century should be a fascinating topic- but this book was kind of dull, and very messy. Entire sentences were repeated in different chapters, and there was no context behind the writing- the idea that the plague was the result of "outer space bacteria" that fell into our atmosphere was given more space than the 1381 Peasant's Revolt, which was directly influenced by the plague. I ju ...more
Dave Maddock
Nov 17, 2012 rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
In a parenthetical, Cantor claims that one of his sources wrote his book after "his department head reminded him it was publish or perish time." I suspect this is true of Cantor's work too. It is sloppy, unfocused, and frankly, only about 20% relevant to the Plague. There are places too where he comes off as blissfully ignorant of some of his subject matter--as in his description of the ancestral hominid Australopithecus as "probably black"--and makes one wonder what else he's got wrong that you ...more
This book looks at what happened after the Plague ravaged Europe. Cantor speculates on what historical changes were possible only because of the plague and what could have happened without its devastation. I've read this book a few times, and I have always been intrigued by how much was changed in Europe due to the sheer amount of deaths and the lack of workers in the countries affected by the Black Death. Don't go looking into this book as another history about what happened during the plague y ...more
Katherine Rowland
Apr 26, 2016 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nf-history
Disappointing. The concept was fascinating: how did the Black Death change society? The execution of this concept was sadly wanting. Too gossipy in tone in some places, dry in others, the author skips from topic to topic as though he were writing a series of essays entitled, "Some Things I Know About the Plague and Medieval Europe (Now With 75% Less Verification).

Cantor has some valid points and attempts to breathe life into people who now seem to be only names. But the positives are outweighed
Nov 06, 2012 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"In the Wake of the Plague" by Norman F. Cantor, with John McDonough as Narrator is a chatty but interesting history of history of how England and to some degree Europe as a whole, were affected by the Black Plague.

Cantor traces the plague as it invades England. He discusses how it affected England's geo-political situation. He also discusses how the different economic classes and major organizations such as the Church were affected.

I found particularly interesting the many facts he put into th
Jul 07, 2007 rated it really liked it
I found this book very different from my expectations but nonetheless fascinating. It does not spend as much time on the progression and details of the black plague's spread as it does on the historical and socialogical import and impact of the plague on Europe--which was catastrophic and world order changing in its scope! The author explores the origins and possible spread theories of the plague, which are imperfectly explained by the most popular 'rat infestation' alone. I was surprised.. and ...more
Sep 12, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: historic
This book is a sociological examination of the Black Plague's effect on medieval Europe. I read it because I am interested in the Plague, but it is barely mentioned. I learned a couple of new things in this book, but I found it rather dry and tedious. There is a lot of name-dropping of Kings, Princes, gentry, and courtiers and not remembering these individuals from history classes, I found it similarly hard to follow. This is a good read if you're into medieval Europe, but not so much for the pl ...more
Mar 12, 2016 rated it it was ok
Reading this book was a mistake, I didn't find it overly interesting, and the author seemed to hate all of the medieval characters of history that I loved. I'm very happy to have finished this one!
David Joseph
Sep 14, 2018 rated it liked it
This was just the right size for me. A little over 200 pages. Not some kind of intimidating millenary tome with countless tangents and strayings from the actual topic you want to learn about.
There is still some of that in this book, but not too much. I’m not really sure why I grabbed a book on the Black Death, but there you go. At moments, Cantor gets a little caught up in describing other medieval historical aspects, but it’s usually pretty interesting all the same.
Too often have I picked u
Shhhhh Ahhhhh
Nov 08, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shame on me for not paying enough attention to the title. First, when I got it, I thought it was going to be about the zombie apocalypse. When i found out it was actually about the black plague, I thought to myself "yay, it's about the real zombie apocalypse". Then, when I started reading it, I realized that I had entirely overlooked the word "wake".

This book taught me a lot about european societies during the black plague outbreaks, the competing hypotheses about the black plague (bubonic and
Nov 04, 2017 marked it as to-read
This book is a popular treatment of the Black Plaque and its aftermath. And while Cantor is clearly well versed in many of the historical approaches used to study and appraise the historical import of the Plaque he fails to provide readers with a coherent narrative.

Cantor focuses primarily upon the effects of the Plague on the imperial ambitions of England’s Plantagenet monarchs and their subsequent eclipse by the houses of Lancaster and Tudor. This history in large part bookends Cantor’s story
Nicoleta Fedorca
Jun 09, 2015 rated it really liked it
My first book about the plague which killed millions of people in europe in the middle ages. This book it's more about the consequences after the plague but also about the plague itself which the author things it was formed from bubonic plague and anthrax and maybe dust from meteorites passing close to earth. He gives good reasons and other books to support this ideas.
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Born in Winnipeg, Canada, Cantor received his B.A. at the University of Manitoba in 1951. He went on to get his master's degree in 1953 from Princeton University and spent a year as a Rhodes Scholar at the University of Oxford. He received his doctorate from Princeton in 1957 under the direction of the eminent medievalist Joseph R. Strayer.

After teaching at Princeton, Cantor moved to Columbia Univ